The forge had flooded.
That wasn’t fair. The entire city had flooded.
But that city included the forge.
“It’s fine, Maggie. I’ll go talk to Hopkins. He’ll understand,” Cyrus had promised her. “I’ve been making good on my payments for years, keeping up. The bills have stayed paid. He’ll recognize that we can’t control an act of the earth.”
He’d left to go talk to Hopkins. To explain. To give an apology and receive a payment extension.
Instead, he’d left behind two teeth and been given a black eye.
Now it was Maggie’s turn, but she wasn’t going to Hopkins to talk. She wanted to kill him.
Maggie felt pain and alien thoughts shoot through her mind as Dane overrode her completely. She was weary, and Dane was energized, given strength from all the petraforms nearby.
Dane, no, stop—
You are mighty Maggie
What are you—
You killed me
Now I protect you
She drew—No. She wasn’t in control.
Dane drew her sword and charged.
The Least of Them shuddered back as another blast of fire rocked their carapace. They served their master, true. The one who conquered their mind, their creator, The Greatest by Far.
But there were limits to service. The Least of Them had seen their siblings fall, seen as the brutal machinations of mortal sorcery bound their minds, sealing and shattering them. The true death. The death that even The Greatest by Far feared.
And those mortals had returned.
The Least of Them would serve. They would send their horde out to face the enemy in perpetuity, letting the chaff die as quickly as it could be spawned, but they didn’t want to die, not to Truly Die.
Death was coming, and they knew it.
Maggie kicked in the door.
Maggie tried to kick in the door. It was sturdier than it looked, and even a second kick didn’t take it down.
Before she could kick a third time, someone opened the door for her.
It ruined her entrance, but she didn’t care. She sloshed in through ankle deep water, making a beeline towards Hopkins, sitting at the far end of his bar and nursing a drink.
Glancing up, he surely saw her expression, but he smiled at her anyways. “It’s the little Cyrus!” he called, using his beer to gesture down at the water. “Roll up your pants and have a drink, child. Sorry I can’t do anything about the water.”
She hadn’t expected the bar to be in full operation, but apparently, if the water had receded enough to stand, it was low enough for business. A dozen regulars were drinking, playing cards, filling up the bar. Mostly elves, mostly not bothering to hide the tips of their ears, but a few humans as well.
Maggie took out her blade, letting the steel sing and draw the eyes of every patron.
It was the first true sword she’d forged. A hand-and-a-half sword, big enough to use two hands on it, small enough it could be held in one. She liked how it felt in her grip. She’d even named it; Ripper.
“I’m not here to drink,” Maggie said, her voice almost a growl. “I’m here to fight.”
Maggie’s mind held both her thoughts, Dane’s, and every petraform around her. She didn’t just know what they were going to do, she dictated it.
Dane slashed through petraforms like a windmill. Their charge was furious, and though their siblings fought for control of the nearest spawn, Dane could hold the other two at bay. Enough that they could slash the chaff down, using themself, the blade that was also them, slaying Maggie’s enemies with fervor.
The bar laughed. Hopkins didn’t even get from his feet. “Child, sit down. Your master and I just had a discussion that got out of hand.”
“You’re a thief!” Maggie shot back, sloshing forward a step closer to Hopkins, only a few paces away.
She noticed when the rest of the bar reacted, all of them flinching just a touch until Hopkins gave them a look of dismissal. “What did I steal?”
“You took Cyrus’s money!” she shouted. “You took his home, his forge, you made him work like a dog just to keep paying you! You ruined him!”
Twenty years of failure. Twenty years of barely scraping by, struggling to make ends meet while Hopkins raked in their money. Maggie had finally learned how much Cyrus owed Hopkins, and it was five times what he’d borrowed.
Hopkins smirked, sipping his beer. “Cyrus agreed to every deal we made.”
“Well, you didn’t have to make that deal so unfair!”
Everyone laughed again.
Maggie’s face burned, and her eyes were wet.
“Your sword!” She screamed, jabbing a finger at him. “You stole your sword!”
That at least got him to raise his eyebrow. “I paid for it, Maggie.”
“But you never fought for it!” She shot, leveling Ripper at him. “It’s no true Cyrus steel unless you’ve fought and proved your worth, and you’re not worth more than a piece of trash.”
Hopkins’ face hardened, and he looked across the bar. The sword he’d paid for, a fine piece of steel, was hung above a rack of whiskey bottles. It was a decoration to him. He pointed, and the elf barkeep took it down.
“You want to fight me, to prove I’m not ‘worthy’ of the blade?” he asked.
I want to drive my sword through your belly for hurting Cyrus, Maggie thought. “Yes.”
He took the blade from the bartender, swishing it through the air. “Then we’ll fight.”
A blast of pure power hit The Least of Them. It was painful, but they were protecting their master from the evil races of men, the ones who would bring the True Death.
It was a losing battle. They knew that. Some of the true great ones, the gods even to The Greatest by Far, had already left this world. Men were growing too wise, and they’d crafted weapons too mighty.
This would be their final battle.
Maggie raised Ripper, the blade shimmering in the bar. She could see her own reflection in the water, rippling every time someone moved.
Hopkin’s men—and they were his men, she’d been stupid to think they were patrons—watched and jeered. Hopkins himself stood, shrugged out of his vest, and downed his beer.
I’m going to kill you, even if they kill me in turn, she thought. Make it look like a duel, knock your guard aside, and—
Hopkins kicked in the water suddenly, splashing it up at Maggie and getting it in her eyes. She winced back and moved a hand up to her face on instinct, trying to wipe her vision clear, and in that moment, Hopkins lunged and struck aside her blade.
She stumbled back, balance thrown by the water around her ankles, and fell. Landing with a tremendous splash, she dropped her sword and barely had room to even scoot back as Hopkins stalked forward, leveling his blade at her eyes.
“Proof enough?” Hopkins asked while the bar jeered.
Maggie glared, reaching out and grabbing her sword from the water. With a furious swipe, she slashed up, knocking his blade to the side, buying her a moment to scream and shove forward. She slammed her shoulder into his chest and they both fell back, rolling on the floor, in the water.
A fist hit her head, ringing her thoughts for a moment, and she rolled away, staggering up.
She was dripping wet, weighed down by cotton clothes that had soaked through, but she had her sword.
Hopkins, similarly drenched, adjusted his grip on his blade. This wasn’t a game for him anymore. He was up against an opponent he had to fear.
Good, Maggie thought. I want you to be afraid.
Dane, Maggie, the sword, the arm holding the sword, the mind, hacked their way through the petraforms. Their thoughts were screaming. It hurt so badly she wanted to scream, but Dane was the one running things, and they didn’t see any reason to use her mouth.
I’m protecting you—
Dane, you have to stop! Please!
Another mind showed up. The third sibling, the one in the walls. It added its mind to the control of the chaff—the petraforms—and Dane’s control was shaken. They could still see the movements, yes, but they couldn’t stagger the beasts around them while they cut them down anymore.
They were distantly aware that, behind them, more chaff were coming up in the tunnel that they’d made. Behind the elves, surrounding them. One elf, from up high, was firing explosives down into the hole, knocking the petraforms back, but only delaying the inevitable.
Elsewhere, a queen—the one with spikes and tusks and razor-sharp chitin—was charging forward, breaking through the lines and taking the fight into its own hands. It was driving towards Twig, intent on running her down and goring her.
Recognizing the danger, they began to retreat, unaware of the tears pouring down her face.
Maggie lunged, kicking up water as she did, going for a killing blow. Reckless in a practice duel, but a good way to ensure a painful death if it hit.
Hopkins sidestepped and knocked her aside with a shove, swinging his blade at her leg. She parried, barely, staggering in the water. Her hip bumped up against a barstool, and she looked back, realizing she’d been cornered.
More jeers, alongside shouts of encouragement directed at Hopkins. She struck out again, both hands on the hilt of Ripper, aiming for Hopkins’ throat.
Again, he batted her attack away with his blade. It took less effort this time, and this time he stepped forward, a powerful fist burying itself in her belly. She gasped, the wind knocked out of her, and stumbled away.
He had lost his fear, but maybe—
Before she could even build the momentum for another lunge, he raised his sword and brought the flat of it against the side of her head, smacking her so hard that everything went black.
Run. We have to run. I’m sorry.
The Least of Them huddled with its remaining siblings, feeling the sharp pain of loss as another one of them was taken away forever.
The Greatest by Far understood. Their chaff were all but used up. They had no strength to continue the fight, and they’d already lost so many siblings.
Though they wanted nothing more than to take vengeance upon the men, upon the mortals who’d bound and brought the true death to their gates, that could not happen. Not today. Maybe not ever.
They channeled their power, together. The spell to flee would use all their collective might and leave them unable to return under their own power. They would have to hope that another of the true great ones would be able to turn the tide, and that they would be found and released.
Opening up a hole, they dropped themselves deep into the earth and closed it behind them.
I can’t win this. I’m sorry. I tried.
Maggie blinked, wincing as she found her eyes open and underwater. Her face was pressed into the floor, and though she could hear splashes and jeers, she couldn’t stand and breathe.
“I know you came to kill me,” Hopkins said, his voice clear in her ears.
The water was only three or four inches deep, but when she tried to pull free, a hand held her down. A strong hand on the back of her head. Keeping her face in the water.
“You thought I didn’t play fair, that I didn’t deserve what I had,” Hopkins said. “But I earned this. I earned all of it, and do you want to know how?”
Maggie thrashed, legs kicking, trying to find leverage to get free of Hopkin’s grasp, but she was tired, and dazed, and she couldn’t breathe. She had no strength left to fight, and even if she had, he was just so strong.
“I took it,” Hopkins hissed. His mouth had to be an inch from her ear, but she couldn’t look to see. “I took it from weaker men who couldn’t stop me. Men like Cyrus.”
She bucked and thrashed, but there was just no getting away. No air. Her vision was getting dark.
His voice was barely a whisper, but she heard it clearly. “And girls like you.”
Please. It hurts. I just want it to stop.
There’s one more thing I can do.
Stepping back, Maggie and Dane raised the sword up high and plunged it down into the stone. A shock wave of energy was thrown back, raw magical force of a primordial vintage, and the stone shook.
Twig was rocked by the queen who had charged her, a tusk driving through her armor and into her belly. With a buck, the queen tossed Twig into the wall, cracking stone where she hit, and then she readied to charge again.
“NO!” Darius cried, firing his grappling hook right at the queen. The hook wrapped around its largest horn and he was pulled towards it, so fast it seemed like he was flying.
“Darius, pull back!” Frey shouted. “You can’t—”
“I’m not out of charges yet!” Darius called back, yanking one last grenade from his belt.
Maggie could only watch, and hurt, and channel power through her arms that rattled the earth to its core.
The force on Maggie’s neck released, and she lifted her head, sucking in air.
Cyrus had arrived. His own sword, a blade he’d had as long as Maggie had known him, was on his belt. “Don’t hurt her,” he said.
“Your girl came to kill me,” Hopkins said, standing and wiping his wet hands on his equally wet shirt. “Why shouldn’t I?”
“She’s young, and stupid,” Cyrus said. “If she got the wrong impression, that’s my fault. Besides, if you kill her, she can’t forge anymore.”
“I’ve still got you,” Hopkins said, reaching out and taking another beer from the elf behind the bar. “And maybe I don’t need any more swords.”
Maggie just panted on the ground, exhausted rage still bubbling up. “Bastard…” she half groaned.
Hopkins kicked her, and Cyrus winced. “You can let her go. I’ll pay you back for this, along with everything else. If she did something wrong, punish me for it.”
“How much for the sword?” Hopkins asked.
Cyrus pulled the blade from his belt, sheath and all, offering it. “Take it.”
“Not yours.” Hopkins pointed down at Maggie’s blade, still shimmering beneath a layer of flood water. “Hers.”
“Not… for sale…” Maggie whimpered.
In Hopkins eyes, she saw glee. She’d said the wrong thing.
“I think it’s time we clear your debt,” Hopkins said, snapping at one of his men. “I’ll take your sword.”
A man hopped forward, taking Cyrus’s blade. Cyrus let him, the corners of his mouth turning down, the wrinkles on his face looking very deep as he saw what was happening.
“If this sword isn’t for sale, it must be pretty priceless,” Hopkins added, stepping over Maggie so he could bend and pick it up. “That’s good for maybe half of what you owe.”
“I don’t have the other half, Hopkins,” Cyrus said quietly.
“So, I’ll take your forge, and everything in it,” Hopkins said. “I know there’s some mostly finished blades in there, and some good steel. That should settle the rest.”
Maggie knew what that meant. Cyrus had no money, and he couldn’t just open up a new forge if his old one was taken away. He was going to be utterly ruined by this. More than just owing a debt, he would truly have nothing.
And it was Maggie’s fault. Maybe Cyrus had a plan, or some money stashed away in secret, some way to fix this.
“And one more thing,” Hopkins said. “This still doesn’t settle what your girl tried to do to me.” Snapping his fingers at his men once more, he said, “Grab him.”
Hopkins’ men obeyed their orders.
“Break his hands,” Hopkins instructed. “I don’t want this old, washed-up vagrant ever forging again.”
Maggie held her breath, waiting for Cyrus to pull something out of his hat.
Again, Hopkins’ men obeyed their orders.
Darius landed on the queen’s face, leaning heavily against the grappling cable for support as she bucked and bellowed. Raising the readied grenade, he timed his throw perfectly, sending the explosive weapon straight down her roaring gullet. The queen’s alien face managed to register visual confusion as she staggered back, utterly perplexed as to what she had just swallowed.
Then the grenade blew. Nearly all of the force was contained within her impenetrable exoskeleton, and the only escape points for the pressure were overloaded. Dark ichor sprayed from her mouth. Her eyes bulged and then burst out in a grisly flourish, the force of the expulsion knocking Darius off her face and onto the ground.
Power started to congeal in the air around her face as the queen lurched, motes of werelight swirling like flies around her empty eye sockets. Despite it all, she wasn’t quite dead yet, and the spell that would transfer her consciousness had begun.
Then she blindly lurched forward, driving a razor-sharp tusk into Darius’s chest. His body shifted, his arms twitched, and then he just… stopped moving.
Maggie’s knife fell out of his hand, he’d been preparing to drive the blade into the queen’s eye.
“NO!” Vera screamed.
A pulse of power shot out from Maggie’s sword a second time, stronger than the first.
The cave collapsed.
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